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Invitation to The Tale of Genji: The Foundational Elements of Japanese Culture

Waseda University via edX


The Tale of Genji ( Genji Monogatari ) is a long-form narrative composed in Japan at the beginning of the eleventh century. It depicts relationships both harmonious and discordant among a wide cast of the men and women of the Heian court. These revolve around the many love affairs of the main character, the Shining Genji (Hikaru Genji).

The Tale of Genji is said to be the world’s first novel and a work of extended prose fiction. But the tale is not notable simply because it is old or long. It must be emphasized that this tale is the centerpiece of a long and vital literary practice with outsized cultural impact, inaugurated by a noblewoman and lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu and her female contemporaries at imperial court more than one thousand years ago.

Their active engagement in such literary productions represents a ground-breaking shift in human history. At the same time, we must not overlook the contribution The Tale of Genji made to the creation of culture in the eras that followed it. From Genji-themed pictures ( Genji-e ) and Genji-inspired noh dramas ( Genji nō ) to contemporary manga, films, and plays, examples of what we might call “Genji Culture” have continued to appear.

This course will give an overview of the story of The Tale of Genji with ample visual references to explain the daily court life, manners and customs, and aesthetic sensibilities, as well as the city (Kyoto), society, and systems that Japanese aristocrats developed a thousand years ago. As a result, students will gain a precise and sophisticated understanding of the world of the tale.

Furthermore, with The Tale of Genji and its reception history as a pivotal point, the course structure will enable participants to approach the foundations of Japanese culture and its spirituality that have been passed down from the ancient time.

*This program is supported by Global Japanese Studies Model Unit, Waseda University Top Global University Project. For more information, please visit here.


Section 1: Introducing the World of The Tale of Genji

1.1 Section 1 Overview

1.2 The Story of The Tale of Genji

1.3 The People We See in The Tale of Genji Scrolls

1.4 Section 1 Assignment

Section 2: People and their Lifestyles in The Tale of Genji

2.1 Section 2 Overview

2.2 The Life Cycles and Rites of Passage for the Nobility

2.3 The Heian Capital, the Inner Palace, and Annual Observances

2.4 Attire and Living Spaces

2.5 Section 2 Assignment

Section 3: The Emperor, Institutions, and Society in The Tale of Genji

3.1 Section 3 Overview

3.2 The Emperors and The Tale of Genji

3.3 The Age of Regency Rule

3.4 Governing Over Center and Periphery

3.5 Section 3 Assignment

Section 4: Japanese Culture as Seen in The Tale of Genji

4.1 Section 4 Overview

4.2 The Influence of The Tale of Genji as Seen in Waka Poetry

4.3 Japanese Culture Springing Up from The Tale of Genji

4.4 The Lasting Legacy of The Tale of Genji

4.5 Section 4 Assignment

Taught by

Hidenori Jinno

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